By Moshi Israel
The 15th annual BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa covers an important theme of BRICS and Africa; Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development, and Inclusive Multilateralism. During this summit, the President of China, Xi Jinping will co-chair alongside Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa the China-Africa leaders’ Dialogue as announced by the Chinese foreign ministry.
This dialogue suitably ties into the overall theme of the summit and has the potential to produce serious outcomes for the African leaders that will take part. China is Africa’s biggest trade partner and has strengthened economic and social ties with the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative, FOCAC, South-South cooperation programs, and a plethora of other development programs.
This dialogue is a vital opportunity for the exchange of ideas that could lead to significant changes on the continent. A major priority for African leaders should be a focus on further investment in the transition to digital economies. Africa still lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to the Internet of Things. Key sectors of the African economy such as health, education, transport, and Agriculture would be more productive if digitized.
Many African countries need to take advantage of the Digital Silk Road (DSR); a component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The DSR is China’s rebranding of its continuous support for technological advancement all over the globe. During the 1990s, Africa experienced a telecommunications revolution and many Chinese firms set their eyes on the continent. The telecommunications revolution was largely due to many African countries liberalizing their telecommunications sectors and upgrading their infrastructure. This development has been driven by the increased use of mobile telephones and broadband for internet access. It is projected that by 2025 there will be about 615 million mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa which is about 50% of the region’s population.
This digital revolution in the telecoms sector has largely been dependent on Chinese firms such as Huawei Technologies, China Telecom, and ZTE which have chipped substantial market share away from non-Chinese companies such as Nokia, Alcatel, Ericsson, and Siemens. Chinese technology firms have played a vital role in building, upgrading, and investing in Telecom’s infrastructure including internet backbone networks, satellites, and undersea cables. These companies offer affordable services and equipment and remain effective and productive.
Since world development is now driven by technology, the digitization of African economies should be higher on the list of priorities when African leaders meet with president xi Jinping. The Digital Silk Road initiative is rarely talked about for instance in a country like Uganda. It is the responsibility of the Ministry of ICT in this country to investigate this issue further and clearly discern opportunities for Uganda’s transition to a digital economy. A push should be made toward isolated individual country technology summits with China’s technology firms, where the youth and other stakeholders are given a chance to engage with these companies.
The citizens in many of the countries that will hold dialogue with the President of China are eagerly waiting for notable outcomes of the summit. It is imperative that African leaders should put the interests of their citizens at the forefront during such impactful deliberations with the continent’s largest trade partner.
Beyond the focus on Digital transition should be a discussion about the need for Africa’s Agricultural products to have a healthy access to the Chinese market. This is naturally conditioned on the quality of products Africans are putting on the market. For instance, the president of Uganda has always championed Uganda as a food basket and advocated for the need for Ugandans to earn from cash crop farming. This dialogue presents a unique opportunity to further this agenda.
Another important issue is that of climate change. African leaders should engage China on the transition to green economies. The latter has been a champion for sustainable development and the fight against climate change and has spent billions of dollars to the cause. A multilateral framework underscoring a combined effort to address climate change issues should be presented by the representatives of African countries during the dialogue. Africa is not the leading polluter in the world but is already suffering the harshest consequences of climate change and global warming. Furthermore, the continent is now faced with the dilemma of industrializing at the expense of the climate or going green at the expense of much needed industrialization and development. However, China could be a reliable partner in striking a balance. Much more investment is required in order for African countries to safely transition to green economies without sacrificing their right to industrialization and economic development.
Finally, the elephant in the room (or not in the room for this matter) should be discussed. This involves the collective west and its reaction to an increasingly pro-china Africa. In an international system based on realpolitik, every country’s interests come first and therefore, partnerships must be formed with this reality in mind. If China is interested in a long-term strategic relationship with Africa, it must offer terms much better and different from the west. And if African countries want to truly benefit from the partnership with China, they must adapt new ways of engaging with china, based on the principles of mutual benefit and placing African interests at the forefront.
The Writer is a Senior Research Fellow with Development Watch Centre